Fresh from a resounding reelection victory, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 – though he still loses to Hillary Rodham Clinton by 10 percentage points in the general election, 44 percent to 34 percent, according to the latest NBC News poll.
When asked if they would like Governor Christie as the Republican nominee or “someone else,” 32 percent of Republican voters chose Christie and 31 percent said “Not Christie." The poll was conducted Nov. 7-10, after Christie beat a weak Democratic opponent by 22 percentage points.
“Naming just Christie divides the faithful equally into Christie, Not Christie, and Don’t Know,” G. Evans Witt, CEO of Princeton Survey Research, which conducted the poll for NBC, told the network. “A third of the vote is not a bad showing in a party primary with [potentially] 10 candidates, but the first primary is more than two years away.”
Indeed, the Republican Party appears headed for an intensely competitive nomination process, marked by sharp internal divisions within the party. A spectrum is forming, with hard-line conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas on one end and Christie representing the more pragmatic, center-right GOP “establishment.”
In this early stage of the 2016 race, the establishment wing is less crowded, so the question is how much Christie can grow his support among the Republican faithful. The 2012 loss of Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, another Northeasterner who governed a solid-blue state, left many Republicans yearning for a nominee in 2016 with a more conservative profile, so Christie’s challenge is to show that he’s not another Romney (or Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, whose 2008 presidential bid never got off the ground).
In temperament, the big, blustery Christie isn’t anything like the genteel Mr. Romney. Christie seems to have sharper political instincts, and little of the hesitation Romney displayed before plowing ahead with a second presidential campaign. Last Tuesday, Christie showed he can win votes that usually go to Democrats. He won 57 percent of the women’s vote, half of Latinos, and 21 percent of African-Americans.
Likely adversaries for the Republican nomination played down Christie’s big reelection win.
"I think we need to understand that some of these races don't apply to future races,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida told CNN on Nov. 6. "Every race is different. It has a different set of factors. But I congratulate [Christie] on his win."
Blue states, in fact, have a history of electing Republican governors while staying loyal to the Democrats in presidential elections. Even as New Jerseyans were sending Christie back to the statehouse for a second term, they still gave Mrs. Clinton the edge over Christie in 2016, 48 percent to 44 percent, according to exit polls.
And the NBC poll shows Clinton beating Christie nationwide 44 to 33 percent among Latinos and 83 to 4 percent among African-Americans.
That is, if Christie makes it to the general election. In the primaries, he faces a noteworthy geographical challenge. While a majority of Republicans in the Northeast favor Christie for the nomination, 57 percent to 22 percent, pluralities of Republicans want someone else in other parts of the country, according to NBC.
In the Midwest, Republicans favor “Not Christie” by 35 percent to 30 percent. In the South, “Not Christie” is ahead 29 percent to 27 percent, and in the West, Republicans want someone other than Christie, 40 percent to 22 percent. (The poll has an overall margin of error for Republicans or those who lean Republican of plus-minus 5.8 percentage points.)
Still, the NBC numbers provide support for the argument that Christie would do better in the general election than Romney did, Washington Post blogger Aaron Blake points out.
Christie trails Clinton with Hispanic voters by only 11 percentage points, far fewer than Romney’s 44-point gap. Christie’s deficit with young voters – 14 points – is also far smaller than Romney’s 23-point gap.
“All of this despite Christie’s name ID deficit,” writes Mr. Blake in the Post’s “Fix” blog.
“If Christie could lose by only those margins among those demographics, he would probably win. And his performance on Election Day in New Jersey last week suggests that he’s quite capable of doing that.”